I visited Uganda in a group of six birders on a successful trip arranged by Dave Pitman. The highlights were excellent views of Green-breasted Pitta, Green Broadbill, Shoebill and Mountain Gorilla. We found Uganda to be a friendly and safe country, although a few areas are closed due toinsurgents from neighbouring countries, and I would certainly recommend it as a priority destination.
I had planned to visit with Yorkshire friends but they had to withdraw at a relatively late stage. Dave Pitman’s trip was also a late switch due to failure of earlier plans. The effect of this change was two-fold. Firstly, the trip had to be in the school holidays, a popular time, and so gorilla watching permits for Bwindi, the best site, were not available. Secondly, the basic cost was an agreed lump sum to Dave Pitman who had negotiated a similar deal with Nile Safaris, the ground agent used throughout, and so I am unable to give many cost details in this report.
There is a good website giving much information on Uganda including descriptions of the main reserves and National Parks www.visituganda.com.
I flew from Manchester to Kampala/ Entebbe via Brussels on Sabena, the now deceased Belgian airline, and returned with them from Nairobi. It was relatively expensive at approx £630 as it was the peak holiday period. Returns to Uganda were not much cheaper but a saving of about £100 might have been possible on a direct Nairobi return, eg with Gulf Air.
We had a minibus throughout our time in Uganda. This was booked through Nile Safaris, proprietor James Bakeine firstname.lastname@example.org, as recommended by previous birders such as Richard Webb. They also booked accommodation where necessary and arranged the gorilla permit for Mgahinga NP. We paid a lump sum for all costs except lunch and drinks, most of it up-front by bank transfer, the balance in cash in Uganda. This worked out pretty well and had there been any major problems, eg with the vehicle, I am confident that Nile Safaris would have done the necessary, the only reservation being on the gorilla permit front – see later. They also have a London representative, tel 0207 938 4066.
There is a new development - the establishment of a bird-guides club with vehicles and driver-guides. Our driver-guide, Hassan Mutebi, is a key member of this club, but for our trip was hired by Nile Safaris to drive their vehicle. He was very good as a driver, mammal-guide and general Mr Fix-it, and although a bit of a novice as a bird-guide at this time, was very keen to learn and will probably be pretty good in the future. He did arrange for a few excellent guides to join us at some sites, the most important being Alfred, another member of the new club, at Bwindi. So the choice is to go direct to him: email@example.com, or to stick with the proven record of Nile Safaris. Neither option is cheap, probably at least US$120 a day for 4x4 vehicle seating 3 + driver in comfort, 4 - 6 in less comfort; the cost includes the driver and his expenses but not fuel or park fees. Best of all, but the most expensive, is to hire Alfred for the whole trip, if you can.
A cheaper option is to hire a standard car, which would have been OK as the main roads are mostly paved, except at Mgahinga and Bwindi – you could reach Buhoma but not Ruhizha. I was quoted $45 a day for a 4/5 door saloon/estate, 1500cc, a/c car with 150 km a day free (which should be just about enough) but no CDW, and $80 a day for a small 4x4 with CDW, by the helpful Paul Volrath at City Cars firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also supply a larger 4x4 with a driver/ bird-guide, quoting $100 p.d. with 150 km p.d. for a 6 seater Landrover + driver, including CDW; driver’s living costs are an extra $15 p.d. Nevertheless, I would recommend the full works with Hassan (and Alfred, at Bwindi at least) unless you really can’t afford it or are going on a short or few sites trip.
The standard of accommodation varied from pleasant, eg bed and breakfast in quiet large house in the suburbs of Kampala and a decent hotel in Masindi, to very basic bandas (huts), eg at Mabira and Bwindi. I suspect that it was all cheap, eg less than $10 per person a night except in Kampala. I had email contact with the helpful John Hunwick at Backpackers Hostel: email@example.com (tel. 256 (0) 41 344417 or 77 430758), which looked a good option for Kampala, just 3km from the city centre with good security, internet and set in birdy grounds. There is accommodation at nearly all sites (details in Rossouw and Sacchi), which is more convenient for birding early and late in the day than some of the places we stayed, but pretty basic.
The food was generally quite good, although gastronomically unexceptional - almost standard British fare at times, with chips frequently available, even for breakfast on at least one occasion.
Petrol was about half the British price but the one major expense was entrance to the sites. The National Parks cost $15 each per day and the reserves $7, plus a charge for the vehicle and guide.
Chimps were easily seen at Kibale – the local guides know where they are. We stood under or near trees for some time where a group fed, but only two came down to the ground, in order to move to a different group of trees. They whooped noisily from time to time but I didn’t find the experience very exciting. The next day some tourists saw a large group on the ground all around them, which sounded more of a spectacle. It is also possible to see them at Budongo Forest, especially in the Kaniyo Pabidi area where the experience is said to be better than at Kibale.
Gorillas were a different story. It is best to get permits for Bwindi where sightings are virtually guaranteed, year-round. They cost $250 each but are booked up by agencies who then add on anything from $25 to $150. They were said to be unavailable for the dates we wanted, so we had to settle for Mgahinga, at a cost of $200 ($175 goes to the NP). James assured us there should be no problem to see gorillas here but I knew that there was a serious risk of them going across the border into Zaire/ Congo at about this time. Sure enough, when we reached the area we were told that they had just done that the previous day, having been in Uganda for at least several months. This meant we could not see them. Hassan said our only chance was to go to Rwanda, the border being only 20km away, to which we agreed. He rang James to tell him this but said he got no encouragement or offer to get our money back, which theoretically has to be done in Kampala. However, because he knew the local officials and those in Rwanda, in the next 24 hours he was able to get $175 each back and book a slot for us in Rwanda. We then had to pay an extra $75 cash for permits, ie the same cost as for Bwindi (but without an agency premium).
Crossing the border was straightforward and free, but on returning to the Uganda border we had to buy another visa for $30. An expensive business, and impossible without US$ cash and the perseverance of Hassan. We saw a group of 8 gorillas after an hour’s hike, spending 80 minutes with them. For 5-10 mins I was only 2 metres away from a full-size male, 13 years old (not the silverback), who suddenly came out of the bushes and sat down facing me, obviously recognizing a kindred spirit – a magical experience I’ll never forget.
Booking gorilla permits for a suitable date should be the first priority when organising a trip to Uganda. However, Hassan and Alfred said they could obtain permits for $250 at Bwindi with a months notice. If Bwindi is a problem, try to book Rwanda as this is as reliable as Bwindi but will take at least half a day more to do.
We had no security problems and were told Kampala was a safe city, certainly compared to say Nairobi or Mombasa. There was a significant army presence at Bwindi and Mgahinga. There had been a major incident at Bwindi in 2000 but some, at least, of the perpetrators had been killed and the President had personally told the NP staff that there would be dire consequences if any other tourists were harmed. Rwandan rebels were said to be still using Mgahinga NP as a short cut to Rwanda from their bases in the Congo, and so we were not allowed to go far into the reserve. Rebels had recently been cleared from Ruwenzori Mountains NP which had been reopened but was apparently full of soldiers. Semliki was still being “cleared” at this time and was therefore closed, and part of the northwest region was also closed due to the presence of Sudanese rebels. Hence, Uganda is safe wherever you are allowed to go, ie in most of the country.
The weather was quite good, with temperatures varying from cool at night in the mountains to hot in the lower regions. It did rain on 10 days, especially in the Mabira/ Kampala region, but not much time was lost to heavy rain. Birding was probably the better for the rain as some reports mention low activity due to dry conditions at this time of year,
I had no health problems and took Larium throughout. The only real nuisance was Tsetse flies which were present in small numbers at Murchison Falls, Lake Mburo and Queen Elizabeth NPs. Vicious ants were encountered occasionally, especially at Mabira Forest.
A visa is required, costing £25 if British - from the Uganda High Commission, 58-59 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DX, one day in person or 1-2 weeks by mail.
US$ cash is the best currency, exchangeable in large towns and tourist hotels in the National Parks. Travellers cheques only seem to be exchangeable in Kampala and possibly at major tourist hotels, but were accepted at the gorilla HQ in Rwanda. We only found one ATM, in Kampala, which accepted a standard cash or credit card.
English is spoken quite widely but by no means by everybody, so an English-speaking guide or driver is an asset.
It is possible to email from Kampala but few if any other localities, and telephones are not too easy to find in the southwest.
The two frustrations of the trip were the late starts on a number of days for various reasons – worth taking a spare alarm clock – and the need to take an official guide when walking in the National Parks, which limited the time allowed in the Park and possibilities of “doing your own thing”, on some occasions.
Although many of the birds are fairly easy to identify from the books, there are some serious problems, especially with greenbuls, sunbirds and weavers. Particularly difficult are Dusky and Olive Long-tailed Cuckoos and the small honeyguides. The cuckoos are identical except for the outer tail feathers which are white edged in Olive and rusty in Dusky. According to Alfred, Olive fans its tail when perched whereas Dusky does not, but the difference in song is the only sure identification. The honeyguides differ a little in size, decreasing in the order Lesser = Thick-billed, Least = Willcock’s, Dwarf. Lesser is not really a primary forest bird like the others and Least here is pale under (from skins I checked at Tring), with white loral spots and black malar stripes as elsewhere, but identification is almost impossible without a good view or hearing the voice. The guides were very helpful with bulbuls, which they appeared to know well.
Where to watch birds in Uganda, 1998, by Jonathan Rossouw and Marco Sacchi – essential site guide.
Field Guide to the birds of East Africa, 2001, by Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe – essential, but only published after we returned.
Illustrated checklist of the birds of Eastern Africa, 1995, by Ber Van Perlo – useful to us in the field despite many inaccuracies but redundant now.
Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania, 1996, by Dale Zimmerman, Don Turner, et al - in-depth coverage of about 85% of Uganda species.
The birds of Africa, by Urban, E. K., Fry, C. H. and Keith, S. Vol.s 1-6 Academic Press – excellent reference when at home.
Uganda Trip report, June-August 1995, by Henk Hendriks, with detailed site guide with10 maps, etc., including Semliki - useful.
Trip lists for July- August 1996 by Richard Webb and Alan Wilkinson – useful.
It is well worth obtaining the tape cassette of recordings by Jonathan Rossouw. Chappuis’ West African series has a few additional species of relevance but is not essential.
I am very grateful for the help given me by the following: Richard Bishop, Henk Hendriks, Bruce Hills, Jeremy Lindsell, Barry Reed, Jonathan Rossouw, Richard Webb, Alan Wilkinson and Malcolm Wilson. The members of the group, Ken Hardy, Paul Hopkins, Rob Hunt and Nick Preston, were all good company and Dave Pitman deserves special praise for keeping us in order in such jovial way. All the Ugandan guides were first class and we owe a special thanks to Hassan who was a tower of strength.
The first four days were constrained by the need to be at Entebbe Airport on the evening of day 4 to pick up Ken who could only join us then. Hence we elected to spend most of that time at Mabira Forest only 50km from Kampala and then attempted, successfully, to see Shoebill, the key bird for most of us. In retrospect, it would have been better to have spent the whole of the third day at Mabira, to have had another shot at Nahan’s Francolin and Shining-blue Kingfisher. We then had to fit the other key sites into 19 days, which we did fairly well. Going to Rwanda cost us a day which would have been best spent at Buhoma. I would also have liked an extra day or two at Bwindi and half a day to try for Fox’s Weaver, the only Ugandan endemic bird, northeast of Kampala.
July 25 Fly from Manchester at 06.45 via Brussels arriving ENTEBBE at 23.30. (19.00 scheduled). Drove in minibus to guest house in suburbs of Kampala, arriving 01.30.
26-27 MABIRA FOREST all day. Mabira Forest bandas
28 MABIRA FOREST till 11.30 and then drive to KAMPALA; afternoon at Mabamba Bussi swamp. Guesthouse in Kampala
29 Mabamba Bussi swamp a.m., Botanical Gardens in ENTEBBE p.m. Pick up Ken at 19.00. Guesthouse in Kampala
30 Drive to Masindi, BUDONGO FOREST Busingiro p.m.Court View Hotel, Masindi
31 BUDONGO FOREST Royal Mile area all day. Court View Hotel, Masindi
Aug 1 BUDONGO FOREST Kaniyo Pabidi until 11.00, then drive to MURCHINSON FALLS N.P.; near Falls till dark and night drive back to camp. Paraa Camp bandas
2 MURCHISON FALLS N.P.all day, with boat trip 14.15-17.15. Paraa Camp bandas
3 Drive to FORT PORTAL with stops, especially at Butiaba escarpment and at forest just before Fort Portal. Riviera Inn, Fort Portal
4 KIBALE FOREST all day including chimp tracking and Megombe Swamp 15.00-19.00. Riviera Inn, Fort Portal
5 KIBALE FOREST all day. Riviera Inn, Fort Portal
6 Drive to QUEEN ELIZABETH N.P. a.m., Kazinga Channel boat trip 15.0-17.0, game drive till 20.00. Institute of Ecology Hostel
7 QUEEN ELIZABETH N.P. till 09.30 and then drive to Kisoro with stops. Sky Blue Motel, Kisoro
8 MGAHINGA N.P. till 15.15, return to Kisoro. Sky Blue Motel, Kisoro
9 Drive to P.N. des VOLCANES, Rwanda for gorilla tracking, then back to Kisoro. Sky Blue Motel, Kisoro
10 Drive to RUHIZHA, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest N.P., birding Icuyu Forest Reserve en route and Ruhizha road p.m. Research Centre, Ruhizha
11 Mubwindi Swamp BWINDI IMPENETRABLE FOREST N.P. most of the day. Research Centre, Ruhizha
12 Slow drive to The Neck, birded there 11.30-13.30, then to BUHOMA, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest N.P. Buhoma Community bandas
13-14 BWINDI IMPENETRABLE FOREST all day. Buhoma Community bandas
15 Drive to KABALE with stop for Compact Weaver, then to LAKE MBURO N.P. Rwonyo Camp bandas
16 Lake MBURO N.P.all day.Rwonyo Camp bandas
17 Slow drive out of LAKE MBURO N.P. with stops, then stop at KAAKU SWAMP. Drive to Kampala via ENTEBBE airport p.m., then to MKONO. Hotel in Mkono.
18 Drive to Lake Navaisha, KENYA, with stop at Source of the Nile east of Mkono.
After a late arrival (01.30) in Kampala, we left for Mabira Forest at the “late” time of 07.00 on our first full day. Good birding along loop trail beyond the bandas till rain stopped play at 13.00: White-spotted Flufftail, Scaly-breasted Illadopsis, Fire-crested Alethe, and Plain Greenbul. After lunch, drove 5km down road to the pond where stayed till dusk: Grey Longbill, Purple-headed Starling. Following morning spent in primary forest on other side of main road till rain started again at 13.30: Weyn’s Weaver, Forest Robin Toro-olive Greenbul and calling Nahan’s Francolin; then back to pond later on: Forest Wood-hoopoe. Final morning I tried again for the francolin but only had Dusky Long-tailed-Cuckoo and Jameson’s Wattle-eye.
Left for Kampala at 11.30 for necessary business then drove to Mabamba Bussi Swamp for boat trip, 16.00-19.00: one distant Shoebill. Returned the following morning and saw 2 Shoebills before heavy rain started. Back at Kampala, changed vehicle with Hassan taking over. Then to Entebbe Botanical Gardens till dusk – lots of friendly locals as it was a Sunday but Orange and Slender-billed Weavers were ticks. Collected Ken Hardy from airport and had drinks with Malcolm Wilson and Hassan at a lively club in Kampala.
A late start for the 170km drive to the turn off to Masindi and Budongo, soon stopping after the turn for a good flock which included White-crested Turaco. After a slow lunch at Masindi, drove to Busingiro just in time for the afternoon downpour, which eased by 16.00, so stayed there till dark at 19.00: White-thighed Hornbill and Little Green Sunbird. Day 6, the first dry day, was spent at Budongo with guide Joseph - the Royal Mile 07.00-15.00, and Busingiro 15.30-18.30: Crowned Eagle, Choc-backed Kingfisher, Grey-winged Robin-Chat, Forest Flycatcher, Willcock’s Honeyguide, Spotted Greenbul but failed to find Ituri Batis or see calling Nahan’s, again. First 4 hours of day 7 were spent at Kaniyo Pabidi, looking for Puvel’s Illadopsis for first 90 mins when seen – the few birds included Grey-headed Sunbird. Departed at noon for Murchison Falls; delayed by puncture, so missed ferry across river where we had intended to bird and mammal watch. Drove back to Falls road and spent remainder of afternoon in vicinity of impressive falls: Bat Hawk, Rock Pratincole, Greater Honeyguide, Western Violet-backed Sunbird, Chestnut-crowned Sparrow-Weaver. Slow drive back to Paraa Camp spot-lighting gave 60+ Pennant-winged Nightjar and 6 Long-tailed, plus Leopard and Civet.
On the morning of day 8 we did cross the ferry, at 07.15, and drove till 13.30 with a long stop at a big papyrus swamp: 2 Shoebills (closer this time), dancing Grey-crowned Cranes, many plovers, Heuglin’s Francolins, Silverbirds, lots of mammalian herbivores but no carnivores. Boat trip, 14.00-17.15, to the falls – pleasant but almost birdless except for Rock Pratincoles and Red-throated Bee-eaters. Bar-breasted Firefinch was a good sighting near the camp.
An early start today meant we reached Butiaba escarpment at a reasonable hour and were able to find Foxy Cisticola and Cliff-chat. A few more stops were unrewarding until we reached primary forest at 1500m before Fort Portal, where I saw White-naped Pigeon and Masked Apalis – more time here might have been rewarding. The Riviera Inn was quite nice, except for cold showers and a shortage of beds so that Nick had to sleep on a mattress on the floor. Pepper steak and banana fritters were good but an outside disco for about 50 Rotarians started at 23.30 and continued till 02.00! Our room was throbbing and requests to have the volume turned down fell on deaf ears. My alarm went off at 05.30 but needless to say there was no sign of staff for the promised early breakfast. A 45 min drive took us to the Kibale NP centre at Kanyanchu but no guide appeared for some time. We were eventually taken to where chimps were feeding in a fig tree and watched 5 for over an hour. Then birded along the wide track, seeing nothing new. After a leisurely lunch of omelettes and ratatouille, provided by the Womens Cooperative, departed for Begodi Wetland Sanctuary Visitor Centre and Magombe Swamp where we were joined by the President of the Uganda Birding Club. White-winged Warbler and White-collared Oliveback were the highlights, and a Black Sparrowhawk flew past with prey at dusk. Steak and chips, followed by chocolate pancakes, was welcome fare at the Gardens Restaurant in Fort Portal.
Managed to leave at 06.15 on day 11 after a cooked breakfast but then had to wait 30 mins for a guide at Kibale. Set off on trail B but 7 people were too many so I left for the main road, mainly to look for pigeons. None seen but a Sabine’s Spinetail flock, Grey-green Bush-shrike and Blue-headed Sunbird were consolations. 90 mins back in the forest only produced Honeyguide Greenbul; the others saw a few good birds including Brown Illadopsis. At 15.00 we returned to a forest trail with Ronald and flushed a Green-breasted Pitta, relocating it at a few perches over the next 20 mins! Everything else paled into insignificance, not that there was much else apart from a flock containing Sooty Tits.
At night I slept through an earthquake but was awoken by several bursts of gunfire (harmless?). Left at 06.15 without breakfast as hotel staff never appeared. Rather too laid-back in Uganda! Drove to QENP with the odd stop, then did a game drive seeing nothing of great note. Checked in at Ecology Unit hostel and birded around the site, missing Giant Forest Hog and Black-winged Pratincole. Fish and chips for lunch, then 2 hour boat trip on Kazinga Channel – good for photos but the only new bird was Yellow-backed (Black-headed) Weaver. Game drive from 17.00-20.00, disappointing, but followed by good buffet at Tembo restaurant. Another game drive the following morning gave nothing new till 09.00 when we saw Harlequin Quail and Small Buttonquail but not Hottentot Buttonquail. Drove to Kisoro (1845m), arriving at 18.40, with a stop in bamboo (2260m) where we saw Red-faced Woodland and Cinnamon Bracken Warblers, and at Kyambura where birds included Brown-backed Scrub-Robin and Red-collared Widowbird. The evening at Sky Blue Motel was spoilt by Hassan announcing that the Mgahinga gorillas had just left Uganda, so we could not see them tomorrow but would have to arrange to go to Rwanda the next day.
A late start meant that we did not reach Mgahinga NP till 08.20. Then had to wait for an armed escort of 20 soldiers to be organised to prevent possible attack from Rwandan soldiers and rebels. Not allowed to walk far and had to return to base by 15.15 as soldiers were “needed” back there. However, did see the two key birds – Ruwenzori Turaco and Stuhlmann’s Sunbird, plus Archer’s Robin-chat, Dwarf Honeyguide, Ruwenzori Batis and the golden form of Hoest’s Monkey. Unable to go elsewhere as Hassan had to drive to the Rwandan border to get our passports cleared for an early crossing. Alfred joined us in the evening.
Day 15 was the highlight of the trip for me, a return to Rwanda where I had failed to obtain a gorilla ticket 11 years ago (due to high demand then). We crossed to the Rwandan border at 7ish but had to wait 30 mins for the immigration man to come. Soon reached the PN de Volcanes office but then had a long long wait for all parties and guides to assemble, before the convoy drove to gorilla HQ where we 22 tourists were divided into 3 groups. We set off for gorilla group 13 at 11.15 and after a final slow clamber up a slippery slope, reached the group at 12.20. To my surprise they were not in forest but long grass and scrub, so the light was quite good for photography. The single silverback was the only one of the family of 8 that seemed concerned by our presence, as evidenced by his refusal to look at us. The others gave a great performance, and it was tough to have to leave after 80 mins. The rest of the day was an anti-climax as we were not allowed to stop for birding on the way down, supposedly because heavy rain was expected – it came but not for long.
Another late start the next day, to Bwindi, partly due to a flat tyre which took 90 mins to repair. An hour later we reached the edge of Icuyu Forest Reserve where the road was blocked by an overturned lorry. We walked past it and birded along the road, seeing Red-throated Alethe, Ruwenzori Hill-Babbler, White-headed Wood-Hoopoe and Least Honeyguide. Hassan was ill so Dave drove to a clinic at Rubanda where after an hour Hassan was given a shot of quinine for suspected malaria. From 13.30-17.00 we birded the 13km road through Ruhizha: Dwarf Honeyguide, Mountain Masked Apalis and Brown-capped Weaver. A long wait for accommodation to be sorted, in the research centre (Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation) just outside the NP, before a short walk in the dark resulted in poor views of Ruwenzori Nightjar.
An early morning drive spot-lighting was disappointing, but the walk to Mbwindi Swamp, 08.00-12.00 (2215 –2365 – 2010m) was very rewarding, with Grauer's (Green) Broadbill feeding in a fruiting tree, Grauer’s Warbler, Shelley’s Greenbul, Yellow-eyed Black Flycatcher and Stripe-breasted Tit. Another Broadbill was watched for some time in a mossy tree where it had nested (according to Alfred) and Grauer’s Bush-Warbler was taped into view at the swamp. Back at the road at 16.00, a Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo was seen exceptionally well, then Luehder’s Bush-Shrike and Mountain Illadopsis.
The next day was murky, after heavy overnight rain, and we did not leave till 08.30. A birding stop gave White-tailed Blue-Flycatcher, Doherty’s Bush-Shrike, Green-headed Sunbird, Dusky Twinspot, and best of all a female and then a male Pennant-winged Nightjar perched in full view. Spent 2 hours at the Neck where we saw Bar-tailed Trogon, Ansorge’s Greenbul, Cassin’s Grey Flycatcher and Tiny Sunbird, then took forever to reach Buhoma because Hassan had to report back to Nile Safaris which involved finding a clear high prominence for the mobile to work. Tried for Red-chested Flufftail just before Buhoma but only Alfred saw it, then fish and chips and bunks in Community bandas.
Spent next two days walking the trails at Buhoma. First day 08.15-16.30 with Alfred, and despite the presence of an extra NP guide, Hassan and 3 armed guards, we managed to see some good birds, such as Red-chested Owlet, Chapin’s Flycatcher, Neumann’s Warbler, Equatorial Akalat and Dusky Crimsonwing. Gorillas called nearby but we couldn’t see them. Alfred was occupied with pre-booked tourists the next day so we had to find our own birds, mostly on the Waterfall Trail: saw Handsome Francolin and Willcock’s Honeyguide, and Nick had Many-coloured Bush-shrike, but we only heard Kivu Ground-Thrush. Couldn’t decide whether a perched long-tailed cuckoo was Dusky or Olive, having heard the latter but never seen it.
As I had been outvoted on staying for a further few hours at Buhoma, we were ready to go on day 21 at 07.00, although did not leave till 08.20 because of a wrangle over cash for the bill. Stopped at a couple of bridges to look for Compact Weaver in elephant grass, identifying a single one near the broken bridge. Took 3 hours to reach Kabale, and another 3 to Lake Mburo where we stayed in bandas at Rwonyo Camp. No luck with nightjars. The next day was spent entirely in Lake Mburo NP, starting at the lake where a Swamp Nightjar was hawking at dawn and Moustached Grass-Warblers singing. Escorted by an armed ranger, we walked to a papyrus swamp, seeing a good selection of birds including Rufous-bellied Heron, Little Sparrowhawk, Bearded Woodpecker and White-winged Warbler, then up the hill to visitor-free Mantana Camp ($180 a night!). While the others rested, I had a nice walk for an hour on the hillside beyond the camp, trying to find Red-faced Barbet. I heard one unknown barbet calling but could not find it. Did see Mouse-coloured Penduline-Tit, apparently new for the NP, Pale Flycatcher and Dwarf Mongoose. Later on, a drive and short walk were unproductive, then the others took a boat trip for Finfoot while I walked in the acacia scrub above the bandas, again seeing a good selection of species but nothing exceptional.
Another late start on our final day, due to someone over-sleeping. Several stops on the drive out of the NP gave similar birds to yesterday but just outside we found 10 Brown-chested Plovers, where Hassan had seen them before. A long stop at Kaaku Swamp was rewarding for water-birds including Little Bittern and Allen’s Gallinule; declined a fisherman’s offer to take us in his rowing boat to see a Shoebill. After a good buffet lunch at Masaka (the Highway Take-away), we drove to Entebbe, arriving at 17.15 after a puncture. Farewell to Nick, Paul and Ken, then on to Kampala, to debrief James, etc. Finally drove east to Mkono, where Hassan lived, and stayed at cheap OK hotel, opposite a noisy disco, to give us a good start for the long drive to Lake Navaisha in Kenya the following day.
There is no need to say much about the sites as they are all described in the excellent Where to watch birds in Uganda by Rossouw and Sacchi. They do list key birds for each site but some of these are highly unlikely to be seen so I am listing what I think are the birds one should realistically try to see. The main aim should be to see the 25 Albertine Rift endemics which occur in Uganda, nearly all of which are in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Hence as much time as possible should be spent there.
The one major site we did not visit is Semliki NP. This is the only true lowland rainforest site in Uganda and holds many of the central and west African lowland species, but it was not open this year due to the possible presence of insurgents and in any case would require a number of days to due justice to it as birding in this habitat is invariably slow. According to Jeremy Lindsell (who spent 3 years in Uganda on bird research) “Semliki is possible on public transport if you have time. You can get off at Sempaya Hot Springs which is right on the road and wander around there. Then get a lift from there through to the head of the Kirumia trail which starts from the road too. I don't know how frequent vehicles are and you'd be perched on a pickup most likely. You'd be looking for vehicles from Fort Portal to Bundibugyo.” Most of the birds here occur in Gabon, Cameroon or even as far west as the Ivory Coast.
Mabira Forest Reserve
An hour's drive east of Kampala at an elevation of 1070-1340m a.s.l., the primary and secondary forest here is easy to access, with good trails, and holds a lot of birds including several difficult to see elsewhere in Uganda. Nile Safaris proposed that we should stay in a town some way off but the book said it was possible to stay in bandas within the forest. I checked with Jonathan Roussow, by email, that this was still the case and he strongly encouraged this as the bandas are run by the local community, which benefits from the income generated. We did stay there in the electricity-free bandas and were served basic food cooked at the nearby centre, with beer brought from the village. We paid for a security guard who we only spotted once, hiding in the forest with his bow and arrows!
The English-speaking ranger Ibrahim Senfuma was our guide. He was very knowledgable about the birds here and gave us an excellent start to familiarising ourselves with the avifauna and its identification.
Key Species: Nahan's Francolin (seen by a couple of the group but only heard by me), Shining-blue Kingfisher, Forest Wood-hoopoe, Plain Greenbul, Toro Olive Greenbul, Sooty Boubou, Grey Longbill, Weyn's Weaver. This is also a good site for White-spotted Flufftail, and other possibilities include Least Honeyguide, Scaly-breasted Illadopsis, Fire-crested Alethe, Dusky Crested Flycatcher, Tit-Hylia, Grey-headed and Little Green Sunbirds Purple-headed Glossy-Starling and Black-bellied Seedcracker.
Entebbe/ Kampala area
The book describes Entebbe Botanical Gardens (Orange and Slender-billed Weavers) and Mabamba Bussi wetlands (Shoebill), both worthy of visiting. We saw a rather distant Shoebill by taking a boat into the papyrus swamp at the latter. On the way there, the road passes through another papyrus swamp and a stop here gave Papyrus Gonolek and an invisibly singing White-winged Warbler. Papyrus Canary in flight was also claimed here. Mpanga Forest is also a good site, eg for Weyn’s Weaver.
According to Jeremy Lindsell: “One good site near Kampala not covered by the book is Lutembe Bay just off the road to Entebbe. You can get a fisherman to take you into it on a canoe for a few dollars and have a good chance of Slender-billed Gull and Shoebill. Take a canoe from the landing stage down the road to the left of the entrance gate for the Lutembe Paradise Beach Resort (!) The local word for Shoebill is Bulwe. Otherwise Mabamba is the place for Shoebill, though do check the swamp to the south of the road 45 km beyond Masaka town on the way to Mbarara (if it is wet - also good for Pygmy Goose and Lesser Jacana) and indeed the swamp just on the western edge of Masaka (great for Sitatunga).”
The endemic Fox's Weaver occurs in extensive swampland in the major river basin to the northeast of Kampala.Murchison Falls NP
This site is possibly more interesting for mammals and the magnificent falls than for unusual birds. It used to be known as THE stake-out for Shoebill but this has become more difficult to see here and can be more readily seen near Kampala. Having said that we were able to drive to the edge of the papyrus near the delta and get good views of 2 birds. The only ticks for me were Heuglin's Francolin, Silverbird and Bar-breasted Firefinch although we failed to identify for sure the other new bird occurring here - Black-necked/backed Cisticola C. eximius. The best spectacles were Bat Hawks hunting the multitude of bats leaving the caves above the falls, numerous Rock Pratincoles feeding over the falls, and the incredible male Pennant-winged Nightjars in flight over the road at night. Night drives are not allowed here, nor at any other NP as far as I know, but you are allowed to stay at the Falls till dusk, so can then take a slow drive back to camp, as we did.
Heading south out of the Park on the long dirt road to Fort Portal, you cross the Butiaba escarpment to the east. Chestnut-crowned Sparrow-Weaver and Foxy Cisticola occur here, and if really lucky Brown-rumped Bunting.
Budongo Forest Reserve
The birds here and at Kibale NP are virtually the same but this seems to be the better site to see the specialities, except possibly the pittas. All three areas described in the book should be visited, the Royal Mile meriting most time. Two additional localities are the Nyakafunjo Nature Reserve, the best chance for Black-eared Ground-Thrush and Red-sided Broadbill, and a salt lake a few km from Kaniyo Pabidi which Afep and White-naped Pigeons visit to drink (according to a local ranger). An ecotourism guide will take you to the former and a ranger from Kaniyo Pabidi to the latter. Jeremy Lindell said “I did eventually see both pittas in Budongo but I never heard any calling (knowingly). I used to find them in Jan/ Feb when they were scrabbling through the dry leaf litter. I only know of one other sighting and that was Green-breasted in Semliki.” Our guide at Busingiro claimed to have heard pittas calling in March before dawn, never later.
Key birds: Nahan’s Francolin, Afep and White-naped Pigeons, Chocolate-backed Kingfisher, White-thighed Hornbill, Red-tailed Ant-Thrush, Fire-crested Alethe, Spotted Greenbul, Puvel's Illadopsis, Rufous-crowned Eremomela, African Forest and Chestnut-capped Flycatchers, Grey-headed and Little Green Sunbirds if missed at Mabira (as by us), and Crested Malimbe (which we probably overlooked).
The rare Black-eared Ground-Thrush, Lemon-bellied Crombec and Ituri Batis are all possible – the first two occur in West Africa but not the Batis (which is seen along the main road at Busingiro, eg near the turn into the camp site).
The birding in the forest here was a little disappointing - I spent a lot of time looking unsuccessfully for the two pigeons. The best general birding we had was from the roadside on the way to Fort Portal, about an hour’s drive away: there was good forest here and I saw a White-naped Pigeon fly over. The only good sighting in the reserve was a pitta and this was pure luck. Ronald, the ranger, said he had heard African Pitta calling while chimp-watching, so mid-afternoon we took a trail from the ranger station towards the main wide track into the forest where the chimps were, and were surprised to flush a pitta from the edge of the trail. We eventually located it perched on a log not far away and I saw to my delight and amazement that it was Green-breasted! It flew after a couple of minutes but was relocated twice. Ronald, who was quite knowledgeable on calls though not a good birder, claimed to have had a few sightings of pittas over the years, mainly in the rainy season, and that both species had similar calls. The call of Green-breasted is unkown according to all the books.
We did have a worthwhile afternoon visit to the Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary where we finally had good views of White-winged Scrub-Warbler and also saw White-collared Oliveback. Papyrus Canary was heard but not seen. Shining-blue Kingfisher has been seen here, but not by us.
Queen Elizabeth NP
We only explored the open savanna here, seeing some mammals, though only a single old Lion, but no Hottentot Buttonquail or Blue Quail, my only potential ticks. We did have good views of Harlequin Quail, Small Buttonquail, African Crake and Senegal Lapwing, but missed the Slender-tailed Nightjars at night. This Park does have a huge list but most of the birds are widespread species.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest NP
This is the most important site for birds in the country, with 23 of Uganda’s 25 Albertine Rift endemics possible. We were fortunate in having Alfred Twinomiyuni (firstname.lastname@example.org), Uganda’s best bird-guide with us here – a friend of Hassan. He used to be a ranger here but has now turned free-lance, covering the whole country. There are two main areas to visit: the higher Ruhizha, with no official facilities, and Buhoma, the centre for gorilla-watching and therefore frequented by tourists. It takes several hours of driving to go from one to the other, and it is essential to stop on the way at The Neck, a good site for Chapins' and Cassin’s Flycatchers. Although we spent more time at Bwindi than anywhere else, some four and a half days, it was not really enough: another day in each area would have been worthwhile.
The short trail from Ruhizha to Mbwindi swamp is the best for Grauer's (Green) Broadbill, possibly the most wanted bird here. The trail starts right near the Ruhizha gate and start looking straight away as they have been seen only 500 m in. They particularly like a tree with small (5mm) fruit and can be detected by their high-pitched “see see see” call, but when stationary are really difficult to spot (J Lindsell in litt.). Grauer's Scrub-Warbler is readily taped out at the swamp and the skulking Grauer’s Warbler is in the creeper-festooned bushy trees nearby.
Kivu Ground Thrush occurs at Ruhizha as well as Buhoma, eg in the bamboo. Shelley's Crimsonwing, Lagden's Bushshrike and Purple-breasted Sunbird can be found at Ruhizha with luck, the latter two at The Neck as well. Ruwenzori Nightjars are around the research station, where we stayed; Dusky Twinspot in the road-side scrub and grassland on the drive down to The Neck.
Buhoma is best for Handsome Francolin, Rufous-chested Flufftail, Bronze-naped Pigeon, Olive Long-tailed Cuckoo, Red-chested Owlet, Western Green Tinkerbird, Willcock's Honeyguide, Neumann's Warbler, Equatorial Akalat, White-bellied Robin-Chat and Pale-breasted Illadopsis.
Fraser's Eagle-Owl and Oberlaender's Ground-Thrush have been seen here but are very difficult.
This is the only site where the Albertine Rift endemic Ruwenzori Turaco and Stuhlmann’s/Prigogine's Sunbird are likely to be seen. Also here are Handsome Francolin, Montane/ Ruwenzori Nightjar, Dwarf Honeyguide, Kivu Ground-Thrush, Archer’s Robin-Chat, Black-faced Apalis, Stripe-breasted Tit, Ruwenzori Batis, Lagden’s Bush-Shrike, Malachite, Scarlet-tufted Malachite and Regal Sunbirds and Shelley’s Crimsonwing. We were seriously hampered here by a large army escort and were only allowed to go through the bamboo (where we failed to find the Crimsonwing, possibly the best site for it) to a scrubby grassland area where we saw the two essential species (and Nick Preston flushed a Ruwenzori Nightjar). This was just below the tall montane forest where we could have looked for some of the other goodies had we been allowed.
Lake Mburo NP
This is a good site on the way to or from Kampala – Bwindi. It is the only site for the rarely seen Red-faced Barbet which I spent most of the day looking for (illegally on foot by myself) without success. Tabora Cisticola occurs, which I probably saw but failed to identify, not knowing it was here. There is a lot of papyrus around the lake but we couldn’t see any of the specialities from the shore. The others took a boat out and eventually had good views of African Finfoot but did not find Papyrus Yellow Warbler which occurs here. It is also the best site for Brown-chested Plover, especially just outside the reserve, by the road beyond Nshara Gate I think. We also saw another one 30km before Kaaku Swamp, our next stop en route to Masaka (another 44km) and Entebbe. Kaaku Swamp was good, with Rufous-bellied Heron and many water-birds.
LIST OF SPECIES - the full list is given in the Species Lists section.
Taxonomy, names and sequence follow Clements, JF (2001) Birds of the World: A Checklist, with names in more common use in brackets, where they differ substantially.
Records from The Neck are included in Buhoma. Birds seen while travelling between sites are recorded in the list of the nearest site.